Not long ago I began writing my Master's thesis, and fortunately took a moment to consider what might be formatting 'best practice' before I got too deep into what will probably be the longest text I've ever written. Of course, most students these days write reports, theses, dissertations, and everything else in Microsoft Word, or (if the student is poor or motivated by hatred toward Microsoft) one of the free clones of the same. But I decided instead to try something I've long been meaning to try: the TeX typesetting system, or to be more precise, the LaTeX language built on top of TeX. I learned some important lessons from this.
To use (tongue only somewhat in cheek) my new favorite metaphor, Microsoft Word is like the Persian Empire: decadent, soft, corrupt, encouraging of mysticism and lazy thinking. Whereas LaTeX is like Sparta: cold, clean, hard, disciplined, rational. And outnumbered 2000 to 1.
In all seriousness though, my initial forays into LaTeX and real typesetting have been breaths of fresh air. It's obvious that the creators of this system (Donald Knuth and Leslie Lamport, mostly, with others too numerous to mention contributing the various packages I'm using) think like we think—everything is adjustable, of course, but very little needs to be adjusted. You just write your text, giving some care to structuring it appropriately (which a writer should be doing anyway), run the LaTeX compiler, and the result is very close to what you wanted.
Everything just works, really, including some very nice tricks I never figured out how to do in Word:
- Figures, tables, and equations are autonumbered and all references to the same are adjusted likewise—the equation is labeled with some marker, like 'henry's law', and if that equation is number 2.3, all references marked 'henry's law' are presented as Eq. 2.3 as well.
- Likewise, the bibliography and citations to it are autogenerated.
- Tables of contents, lists of tables, and lists of figures are also automatically created.
- Expressing and formatting mathematics is better in LaTeX than in Microsoft Equation Editor or MathType.
- Vector graphics like .eps files can be included without loss. As far as I know, this remains completely impossible in MS Word to this day, although I'm open to suggestions as to how.
Of course, Word is so large and ...er... “feature”-rich that it can probably do any of these things too (well, except for the last one); with a bit of digging I'm sure I could have figured out how. But it would have been transient knowledge and a waste of time - the fundamental sloppiness of WYSIWYG, the lazy confusion between content and presentation, would still be in the way.
So, perhaps needless to say, I am now writing my thesis in LaTeX. I may provide some progress reports and a description of the techniques I use in the weeks to come; keep checking this space if you're interested. Most interesting of all will be convincing my advisor that I'm not a masochistic madman. Wish me luck.